Friday, May 31, 2013

A time for collaboration and discussion: The Second Annual CI-WATER Symposium

Utah science fair winners present their research at the Symposium

"How do we interact? How do we collaborate and support each other?"

These questions were among the most important asked this week at the Second Annual CI-WATER Symposium. 

With over 40 researchers working at four universities in two different states, the CI-WATER project sometimes feels disjointed. The four teams, Cyberinfrastructure, Data and Modeling Services, Watershed Modeling and Education & Outreach,  work on various parts of the project and use virtual meeting spaces for collaboration. While these virtual spaces are essential for working together from the various universities, the flow of conversation is not quite the same as in face-to-face interactions. 
The Symposium brought together the scattered partners and allowed them much-needed discussion through face time.
Dr. Miriah Meyer talks to an audience at the Symposium
The Symposium, held in Salt Lake City at the Natural History Museum of Utah’s Rio Tinto Center, focused on the idea of modeling a sustainable future. Researchers from the four CI-WATER teams presented their research and work from the last few months including projects that have been completed and where they see the next steps for their work going. Discussions about models, cyberinfrastructure and the digital divide filled the two days. Among these highly technical discussions however, presenters and team leaders returned time and again to the necessity of presenting a more unified front through a concise, clear vision statement.
Dr. Fred Ogden preps for filming

“You never know when you are going to be asked what you are studying,” said Dr. David Tarboton of Utah State University, when stressing the importance of all CI-WATER partners knowing the vision statement. 

By presenting a more unified face, collaborative efforts can be increased and our researchers can work more definitely towards the ultimate goal of the project: helping plan for the future through a better understanding of water systems and water management in the western United States. 

This year’s CI-WATER Symposium was a great success in the conversations it generated among the CI-WATER researchers, the new partnership that formed between team members, the film footage we gathered for videos that will come out later this summer, and the public event featuring Dr. Miriah Meyer. Next week we will share more from Dr. Miriah Meyer’s talk. 

By Kali S. McCrackin 
Photos by Kali S. McCrackin

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Essentials for Modeling a Sustainable Future

Tim Brewer, a consultant, shows EPSCoR intern Robin Rasmussen Mt. Moran

How do you model a sustainable future?
This is part of what CI-WATER collaborators will be discussing at the Second Annual CI-WATER Symposium next week, and the answer, in part, lies within racks of black, plastic, electronic boxes, called nodes. These boxes, complete with rows of blinking lights, may not look impressive on the outside, but they make up the supercomputers housed in Wyoming and Utah, which are vital to CI-WATER research.
A supercomputer is a collection of normal computers which operates faster and allows for higher quality computational research. One such supercomputer used by CI-WATER is Mt. Moran, housed at the University of Wyoming. Mt. Moran, which was put into production in February 2013, is an important addition to research resources at UW, because it is the first supercomputer available solely to UW researchers and their collaborators. It has opened up research capabilities and is changing the way researchers do computational research at UW.
The storage space called Bighorn
“Before, what people were doing was running computational analysis at their workstations at their desks or making small clusters,” says Timothy Kuhfuss, the director of the Advanced Research Computing Center (ARCC).
Computational analysis on these systems was slow and often required graduate students on big research projects to manage these systems when their time and skills may have been better used elsewhere. These graduate students can now work on Mt. Moran, along with their faculty advisers and UW collaborators, such as CI-WATER partners in Utah. Without this resource, researchers on the CI-WATER grant would have a harder time developing the models which will help them better understand water resources in the western United States.
Mt. Moran’s location on the UW campus is just as important as its capabilities because it adds to the environment ARCC strives for in assisting its users.
Mt. Moran
“People like someone local to work with,” says Kuhfuss. “Rather than work with someone across the country, they can literally walk into the office down the hall here and talk with one of our consultants.”
Working one on one with consultants is part of the process when using Mt. Moran and allows for more personalized use of the computing capabilities.
“We want to make it real simple,” says Kuhfuss. “Once researchers apply for an account and have one on the machine, we set up a project space for them. Then, they can look at the ‘how-to’ documentation on the webpage that we point them to. Or, if they’re not the type who wants to use those resources, they can come to our offices and sit down with a consultant who will just get them going.”
Mt. Moran requires far more power than normal computing systems
To date, Mt. Moran is at 98% of its capacity and is used by 115 researchers. CI-WATER researchers at UW rely on this resource to do the base work for their models, which they then move to the bigger NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) outside of Cheyenne, WY. These supercomputers allow for all CI-WATER researchers to examine and evaluate the future of water in the west, through the creation of models for a sustainable future.

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photos by Kali S. McCrackin

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Seeing the big picture on Big Data

Dr. Meyer is a computer scientist at the University of Utah
How much water will the west have in the future? This is just one of the questions CI-WATER is trying to answer, and it’s a big one. Big questions in science usually yield important answers, but first and foremost, they produce data, and lots of it. This Big Data, which is difficult to analyze and sort through, is important, but before it can be useful, it must first be understood.
This is where computer scientists, like Dr. Miriah Meyer come in.
“I create interactive visualization tools to help scientists understand their data,” says Dr. Meyer, who will be presenting “Visualizing Data: Why an Interactive Picture is Worth 1,000 Numbers” on May 29th at the Natural History Museum of Utah at the Rio Tinto Center, in conjunction with the Second Annual  CI-WATER Symposium.
Dr. Meyer became interested in visualization systems while working at a software engineering company after earning her bachelor’s degree in astronomy.
“I love the thought process of computer science,” Dr. Meyer says. “I like to build things as opposed to study them.”
Dr. Meyer’s work isn’t all building however. In order to understand her clients’ needs for a visualization system, she must first understand them, their project and the need for the data. So, she studies them and in doing so, she determines where the visualization tool will be useful, then matches the data type with the visual technique, or creates a new technique, if necessary. These visualization tools, in the form of charts and graphs, are more useful than lengthy spreadsheets, and help researches get a stronger grasp on the outcomes of their work.
Visualization tools, however, aren’t only used by scientists.
“Every aspect of our lives now uses computer science,” Dr. Meyer explains. “The reason I like computer science is that I get to work in just about any field I’d like.”
Currently, Dr. Meyer is working on a tool for a poetry project, a finance project and several scientific projects. Because of the variability of the projects, Dr. Meyer encourages all students to explore this field.
“I think computer science is something everyone should try,” she says. “And, anyone can do it with some degree of work.”
Computer science is a growing field, and one in need of more diversity, Dr. Meyer says. The less diversity there is in the field, the less innovation, because not all technology needs are being recognized. As the STEM fields become more team driven, Dr. Meyer sees an even greater need for diversity in computer science.
“The future of STEM isn’t just about raw analytic skills anymore,” Dr. Meyer says. “Other skills, such as empathy and compassion are just as important.”
Dr. Meyer’s talk on May 29th will examine how interactive visualization systems support people working with Big Data and how these systems are an essential component in research today. While she is not working directly on the CI-WATER project, her message on visualization tools is important to the project because it offers scientists new ways of interpreting research.
“Scientific data often has a large amount of complexity, so using visual channels helps create better representations,” Dr. Meyer says. “Prototypes of these tools often lead to new questions scientists have never asked.”
More information about Dr. Meyer’s work can be found at:
To register for Dr. Meyer’s talk, please visit the CI-WATER website.

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photo courtesy of Utah Education Network

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Diary of a Gimpy Kid: The story of Dawn Allenbach

Deciding on a career path is a daunting choice for many college students. There are so many options, and at eighteen years old, it’s hard to know what path will be most fulfilling. Sometimes, finding a direction is straight-forward, and other times, inspiration comes from unexpected places. For Dawn Allenbach, currently a PhD candidate at the University of New Orleans (UNO), the inspiration for pursuing a degree in biology came from her required public speaking course at Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson, Kansas.
“It was the poaching speech I gave that really sealed the deal for me,” says Dawn. “I think that was actually where mentally I went, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a biologist’. But I think growing up in the country where everything that we had around us was somehow tied to nature is what made me sympathetic to the whole anti-poaching cause.”
Dawn’s childhood setting with hay fields, livestock and the howling of coyotes at night may not be that unfamiliar to many in the western United States. Her life, however, hasn’t been like most. At three years old, Dawn was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), as were her younger sister and brother. SMA is a genetic disorder which causes skeletal muscle strength to diminish over time, necessitating the use of a wheelchair. Despite the barriers others have put up because of her disability, Dawn has followed success after success from high school through her PhD work in conservation biology. On April 25 and 26, Dawn came to the University of Wyoming to share her experiences as a scientist and to offer suggestions on how to make science more accessible in the classroom and the field.
Adaptability, Dawn says, is the key to inclusion. Unfortunately, thinking outside the box when it comes to disabilities isn’t always easy for others.
During her interview at UNO, her future advisor asked, “How can you do research when you can’t do the most basic of physical actions?”
Dawn replied with her characteristic well-grounded logic and dry wit. “Have you ever heard of something called a lab assistant?”
This type of question is one Dawn has faced time and time again. It illuminates the limits that others see people like Dawn facing, but Dawn dismisses them time and time again.
“The mental is there,” she says. “I may not be able to clean the fish tank, but I can help direct an undergraduate assistant in how to do it, because I have a brain and I can speak. Do what my parents do: don’t treat people with disabilities like they are broken. Don’t treat them like there is something wrong with them, because there isn’t.”
Dawn advises all students, regardless of disability, to overcome any barriers and pursue degrees of interest, because finding happiness in what you do with your life is what matters.
“Do something that you care about, because if you are stuck doing genetics and you don’t want to do genetics, you’re going to be miserable,” she says.
Finding the thing you care about in science fields may not happen during an undergraduate career. Rather, it takes having hands-on experience, Dawn says, to really know that the area you are studying is right for you.
“I feel like the master’s degree, where you’re in the lab more than in the classroom, is where you’re really learning what it is about to be a scientist,” Dawn says. “I feel like it is easier to change gears either during the master’s or after, than it is with a PhD.”
While the trend is moving towards going straight from undergraduate work to a PhD, Dawn maintains that the master’s in an important step. A PhD requires a lot of dedication and students have to be mentally ready for that commitment.
“I feel like people shouldn’t be rushed, especially when you’re twenty-three,” Dawn says. “You have to be in a place in your life where you are ready to handle that amount of work. If you’re not sure, don’t do it. There is no time limit at all, I think.”  
For Dawn, her master’s degree really helped her focus on what she wanted to do, which has made her more successful in her PhD work. As her PhD defense grows nearer, Dawn is looking towards the future and what options are available.
“I’d like to do a post-doc first, if I can find something that is related to what I’m doing, but that will teach me something new,” Dawn says.
Eventually, she would like to work at a university. As with all of her pursuits, Dawn is looking at the future with a healthy mix of energy, optimism and realism.
“I don’t think I’m going into it with any illusions that things are great,” she says. “I definitely don’t have any illusions that it’s going to be easy. It’s going to be a ride and I just have to see where it takes me.”
With her energy and enthusiasm, her intellect and work ethic, Dawn is sure to reach her goals and inspire others as she has inspired us with her research and outlook on life. 

By Kali S. McCrackin