Trying new things | National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois

Trying new things

09.09.11 -

by Barbara Jewett

Exploring new technologies and dreaming up ways to apply them characterize NCSA. Expanding capabilities extends to staff as well.

"In retrospect, I probably really wasn't that great a match for NCSA," says Melanie Loots with a laugh. "But Larry Smarr was interested in me and I was hired to be in the database group."

She wanted to work at NCSA, she says, as there was a good overlap between her interests at the time in database technology as applied to commercial databases and some of the things NCSA was doing. Back then she worked with information technology at a pharmaceutical company.

"What I had done in the information group at Squibb was work on computer literature indexing and searching. At that time—that was before the web—you would use commercial databases the company subscribed to. You used fairly arcane search languages to make queries and retrieve things. And we were using teletypes and acoustic couplers to do this. If you wanted to search for a chemical structure, you used a query language to input a structure, and then you'd give the teletype a command and it would draw your structure in ASCII text on the page so you could check it and make sure that's what you wanted. For every search there was a fee, so you needed to make sure your query was correct before you pushed the button to pay the fee. You didn't have a graphical user interface. You had an ASCII interface that people had figured out how to draw with."

She pauses, and chuckles. "That's one of those things older people pull out and tell younger people, to shock them. It is a snapshot of a time when things were much more primitive."

Loots, currently chief of staff for the Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Illinois, spent over 10 years at NCSA and has many fond memories of the center. One of her favorites, she says, is her job interview.

"When I interviewed at NCSA in April 1989 I drove up to the Beckman Institute on the University of Illinois campus, where Larry's office was located, and the governor's limousine was in the drive. I went inside, and there were 200 people eating paella in the atrium! Turns out that was building dedication day.

"I went up to the fifth floor, to Larry's office, where the meeting was supposed to be, and it was all dark; nobody was there. I didn't know what to do so I just waited. And pretty soon people started filtering in for the meeting, and then Larry swept in and everyone seemed to come alive and we had the meeting, talking about information technology and what might happen in the future. Once the meeting was finished I went downstairs where the celebration was still going on, took a bread pudding on my way out, and drove back to Chicago to catch my plane back to New Jersey."

As a chemist, joining NCSA was a big change for her. She'd worked as a postdoc at a university, then in a pharmaceutical laboratory, and in the information group, but "NCSA was not like any part of a university that I'd ever been in before." At that time the center employed about 200 people, spread out across the campus in numerous buildings. Even though there was an organizational structure in place, "every person felt they reported to Larry Smarr," she says. It was an interesting dynamic that led to many successes for the center, as "Larry seemed to inspire people."

In the early days of the center there was untargeted funding available that could be used for a variety of purposes as it was not tied to a specific grant, she says. "That's what made it possible to dream and to try things."

Loots points to a framed poster on her office wall, from SIGGRAPH 92.

"That was the year that Tom DeFanti and Larry put on a big demo of the CAVE, the 3D virtual environment. I have kept that poster because that was such a landmark in NCSA history, and the meeting was in Chicago, and I had lived in Chicago. And the thing I will always remember is I was on a trip to Washington, D.C., with Tom and Larry where they went to various federal agencies and talked about what they were going to do and how important it was, and asked if the agency would help support this event. It was my introduction to how one can work with the federal agencies and develop relationships with program staff. You find out what's important to them, then seek funding for things where there is a good intersection between their interests and the things you want to be doing," she says.

An associate director at NCSA, Loots provided program coordination, managed staff, and managed budgets. And she quickly developed expertise in writing program plans and proposals. "I was not a programmer," she says. If you are an administrator at NCSA but you don't program, she notes, "then your job is writing proposals, always looking for ways to get ideas out and apply the technology." That pulled in a lot of campus faculty, which she says was good preparation for her current job.

"I feel like I still have a relationship with the organization and there are so many good people there."