Campus Champions advance research

08.28.12 -

p>by Susan McKenna

A researcher compiles data on the desktop for days. A biologist struggles to analyze huge amounts of data. An engineering team runs a project on the local cluster but needs to find a more powerful solution.

These researchers, scientists, and engineers need help to move beyond the technology problems so they can solve the science problems. They are learning that the solution often comes in the form of Campus Champions, volunteers who are knowledgeable, committed staff people who serve as a source of information, guidance, and support for their institutions.

Campus Champions is a three-year-old program that XSEDE supports, extends, and expands to further push scientific discoveries via supercomputing resources.

In August 2011, the program added its 100th institution, and now more than 130 individual champions are serving as conduits to supercomputing information and resources. Campus Champion Jeff Pummill of the University of Arkansas said the addition of the 100th institution is a testament to how making needed connections and providing benefits to the research community can cause an organization to grow quickly and build a solid reputation.

Champions meet with researchers on a regular basis; network with and learn from other champions via conferences and meetings; host meetings, orientations, seminars and events to increase awareness of supercomputing resources; provide assistance with allocations; and remain well-informed about resources—especially those available at the national level such as XSEDE.

Especially at larger institutions, it can be difficult for researchers to be aware of all the resources available to them. That is where a champion can make a big difference. Campus Champion Kim Dillman of Purdue University sees herself as a "translator," putting her experience to work to bridge information gaps and help users with various levels of expertise make the most of the available hardware, software and user support.

"XSEDE is more about the people and the use of the resources than it is about the hardware," Pummill said, "and that shift came at a really good time. There is still an emphasis on hardware, and that's not going away," he added, "but XSEDE provides a greater emphasis on how to more effectively use the resources."

In addition to helping spread awareness of XSEDE, champions also help recruit new champions, provide valuable feedback to XSEDE leadership, and encourage new users to look at the national resources, especially researchers from disciplines that haven't been exposed to supercomputing before. There are personal benefits to being a champion, as well. Kay Hunt of Purdue University manages the program and said being a Campus Champion can enhance a person's resume or CV, adding value to a job search or prospective promotion.

Jeff Gardner of the University of Washington is a Campus Champion and a researcher currently working on a project that simulates large chunks of the universe to study how structures and galaxies form. "Having lived on the other side of the fence, one of the challenges was that things are always changing, and how do you keep the community aware of that?" he said. "At our institutions, most of us have multiple roles, and Campus Champions is one tool in our arsenal."

Whether a champion is a systems administrator, IT faculty or staff, a computer science or math professor, the CIO, deputy CIO, or a researcher, each one volunteers because there is a need for the champion's expertise. Champions know that every successful supercomputer project requires a certain level of knowledge, and having that information is especially critical when someone is just getting started. As Pummill said, "Currently there is no better way to make that connection than through the Campus Champions."