Meet UC’s big-data problem solvers

Advanced Research Computing Center at Digital Futures helps researchers across colleges

Sometimes the key to success is knowing what you don’t know.

For many researchers, that might be manipulating and interpreting unimaginably large amounts of data.

But help is available across colleges at the University of Cincinnati. UC’s Advanced Research Computing Center at Digital Futures helps researchers across disciplines process and analyze their numbers.

Jane Combs and her team run supercomputers used by researchers across campus.

Jane Combs is director of UC's Advanced Research Computing Center at Digital Futures. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand

“Our primary audience is engineering and medicine,” Director Jane Combs said. She also directs research computing and data for UC’s Office of Research.

“The College-Conservatory of Music is about the only college I think we haven’t helped, but even there we’ve talked to its dean about storing data.”

Combs and her staff help researchers take advantage of the massive processing power of supercomputers both at UC and at the Ohio Supercomputer Center. They not only provide access to these services but help researchers craft their data analysis as well.

“We do a lot of modeling in simulation and data visualization,” Combs said.

Dr. Prashant Khare, an aerospace engineering professor, has obtained a $700,000 grant to tailor new UC classes to meet the U.S. Navy's needs for computational naval sciences. It's a new minor at CEAS

UC College of Engineering and Applied Science Associate Professor Prashant Khare serves as the faculty director for UC's Advanced Research Computing Center. Photo/Ravenna Rutledge/UC

Prashant Khare serves as faculty director for the center and is an associate professor of aerospace engineering in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science.

“The main thing the center does is accelerate research on campus,” he said. “The second thing the center does is using new tools to open new research avenues.”

The center also provides data storage, which is no small consideration at a Research 1 university. The center also provides training on requested technology such as its high-performance computing apprenticeship program. The center offers three workshops every term on topics such as Introduction to Linux and optimization techniques for high-performance computing.

These days everyone is doing power computing. We’re developing the next generation of leaders in these fields.

Prashant Khare, UC's Advanced Research Computing Center

And the center hosts hackathons on topics such as creating language models with programs such as ChatGPT.

“These days everyone is doing power computing. We’re developing the next generation of leaders in these fields,” Khare said.

Increasingly research is collaborative, Khare said, drawing on expertise from across disciplines.

“It’s precisely because none of us has all the expertise we need for a given project,” he said.

When he submitted a grant application for equipment for the computing center, he solicited help from several different UC colleges, he said.

“It’s amazing how many partners I have for another project with the U.S. Department of Defense: the Army, Navy, businesses — there are people from every part of engineering and computer science working on it,” he said. “We have to work together.”

The center was the recipient of a National Science Foundation grant to hire an expert in artificial intelligence machine learning. They also offer expertise in understanding data in the physical sciences, Combs said.

“They might say, ‘I can only use two-dimensional models on the servers we have in the college, but now we can do 3D models,’” Combs said.

The center’s tools can help researchers scale up their ambitions.

“Everyone who has data in their research — which is pretty much everyone — needs more processing power than what they can carry on their desktop,” Khare said.

Close-ups of computer engineering equipment, circuit boards, computers and software.

UC's Advanced Research Computing Center at Digital Futures helps departments across campus tackle big-data research. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand

The center fills a skills gap for departments across campus, Khare said. Even in his own research into propulsion systems, he has found the center to be indispensable. He acknowledges the center’s help in his published research papers.

“It doesn’t make sense for every department to have specialists in data science, computer science and computational science. We’re a central hub that can help across campus,” he said.

The center’s data tools are isolated into “containers” so software updates won’t interfere with researchers’ projects midstream, director Combs said.

“It’s a way for researchers to have not only their data and computations in one place but also the different versions of the software they’re running,” she said.

But perhaps the biggest asset of the Advanced Research Computing Center is its people, Khare said. Scientists are problem-solvers who can figure things out for themselves given enough time. But the center’s experts work with big-data problems every day.

“If we can figure it out in 30 seconds where it would take a researcher five hours, that’s a big service,” Khare said. “That part of the center isn’t underrated.”

And while departments must pay for the center’s services under the present model, Combs said they are always ready to help.

“It doesn’t cost them anything to talk to us,” she said. “We provide personal service to help people fulfill their research. That’s the best part of our job.”

Featured image at top: Members of UC's Advanced Research Computing Center are available to help students and faculty across campus with their projects. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand

Next Lives Here

The University of Cincinnati is classified as a Research 1 institution by the Carnegie Commission and is ranked in the National Science Foundation's Top-35 public research universities. UC's graduate students and faculty investigate problems and innovate solutions with real-world impact. Next Lives Here.

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The University of Cincinnati. UC’s Advanced Research Computing Center at Digital Futures helps researchers across disciplines process and analyze their numbers. They offer access to supercomputers and expertise to analyze and visualize data.